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Rick Waugh, president and CEO of Scotiabank, leans on the podium at the bank's annual meeting in Halifax on Tuesday, April 5, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Rick Waugh, president and CEO of Scotiabank, leans on the podium at the bank's annual meeting in Halifax on Tuesday, April 5, 2011. (Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

finance

Scotiabank’s Rick Waugh: Perfect timing and a tough act to follow Add to ...

If there was ever a time for a bank chief to bow out, this would be it. Rick Waugh timed his exit perfectly.

The chief executive officer of Bank of Nova Scotia is leaving Canada’s third-largest lender in the same week that its share price posted a record high. The bank’s profits in the past year were also its highest ever, jumping to $6.5-billion, a 160-per-cent hike from the 12 months before he took over the top spot.

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Scotiabank transferred Mr. Waugh, the son of a firefighter, to Toronto months after hiring him to work in Winnipeg in 1970. From there, the bank sent him to run its New York operations and then its international division, which required him to spend long stretches overseas and allowed him to see the potential of markets far afield.

Rather than double down on a few big bets, the way Toronto-Dominion Bank has in the U.S., he’s scattered the bank’s capital, often acquiring small stakes in banks in South America and Asia, getting board seats, and then possibly buying more shares in the same institutions at a later date. Scotiabank’s profits from international personal and commercial banking are now just shy of what the equivalent Canadian unit makes.

The international orientation isn’t the only factor marking Mr. Waugh’s tenure. Of all the Big Six banks, Scotia is the most driven by lending, and the outgoing CEO’s long institutional history, coupled with what friends describe as a “gut” for credit, helped the bank emerge from the global financial crisis relatively unscathed.

Mr. Waugh has pointed out that his bank was the only one that didn’t have to raise equity in the thick of things.

Mr. Waugh wasn’t content to simply survive the crisis. Since the debacle sparked by sub-prime mortgages hit, Scotiabank has spent $13-billion on acquisitions to beef up and diversify Scotiabank’s operations, and he grabbed a global megaphone by co-chairing the Institute of International Finance, earning him invites to exclusive meetings in Washington.

“He’s probably the best at analyzing credit in the bank,” said Sabi Marwah, the bank’s chief operating officer.

In 2002, the year before he took over, Scotiabank made $2.5-billion. In the past 12 months, that profit has nearly tripled to $6.5-billion. The bank also skated through the financial crisis relatively unharmed. In interviews, Mr. Waugh noted that such success was never a certainty, and that he had big shoes to fill. Peter Godsoe, who occupied Scotiabank’s CEO suite in the decade prior to Mr. Waugh’s tenure, is often described as a visionary of Canadian banking. While Mr. Godsoe and Cedric Ritchie, another predecessor, laid the international strategy for Scotiabank, Mr. Waugh filled in the colours.

“The words that tumble out of his mouth don’t always reflect how really smart the guy is,” said Seth Mersky, now a managing director at Onex Corp. The two worked together in the banks’ credit division in New York in the 1980s, and then in Toronto in the mid-1990s. “He’s always had a bit of a gift for well-timed malapropism.”

But not everything went smoothly for Mr. Waugh. Argentina’s economy went belly up when he was head of the international group, and the country’s government forced Scotiabank to sell its investment in Quilmes, a commercial bank, incurring a $540-million writedown in the process. Also, during his tenure as CEO, Scotiabank Mexico has been ensnared in fraud allegations.

The bank’s growth over the past decades hasn’t all come from abroad. In 2012, Mr. Waugh bought ING Bank of Canada for $1.9-billion, a rare chance to scoop up Canadian deposits, and he’s doubled down on wealth management, buying DundeeWealth and a 38 per cent stake in CI Financial. When he started as CEO, wealth management made up 3 per cent of profits. Today it contributes 20 per cent of the bottom line.

Some say it wasn’t always smooth sailing in the executive suites under Mr. Waugh. He has been dubbed a micro-manager who put a lot of pressure on his top lieutenants, with one source describing his management style as “bad parenting.”

Although Thursday was technically Mr. Waugh’s last day, when he handed over the reins to Brian Porter, he will stick around in an advisory role until the end of January. And after he’s gone, he’ll still linger in subtle ways.

Gary Doer, the former Manitoba premier and now Canadian ambassador in Washington, grew up with Mr. Waugh in Winnipeg. He said Mr. Waugh always loved sports, and the two men also played football together. Scotiabank has been the official sponsor of the Canadian Football League and Hockey Night in Canada, and in these sponsorships, Mr. Doer said, “you see a little of Rick Waugh’s personality.”

As of today, Mr. Waugh will have more free time – much of which he’ll spend with his family. His wife, Lynne, referred to herself as a “single mother all her life,” he said in an interview with Business News Network. They now have a grandchild, and he refuses to make her a “single grandmother.”

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